Introduction to Shaarei Yosher

I recently had the honor of translating the introduction to Rav Shimon Shkop‘s Shaarei Yosher. My love of this piece is only partly because Rav Shimon was the rebbe of my rebbe, Rav Dovid Lifshitz.

In a few short pages, Rav Shimon defines holiness, gives the key to happiness and contentment, explains the path to chessed (lovingkindness), and the relationship between mussar and the rest of Torah. His answers to these questions are based on ideas we as products of today’s culture, can very well relate to; for example, chessed is defined in terms of a healthy notion of one’s own value, not an abnegation of self.

In case you missed the earlier links, the document is here (starting in English at one end, and a scan of the Hebrew starting from the other), and the Wikipedia page on Rav Shimon, here.

Holiness and Carrying the Yoke with the Other

(The following is based on a class I gave on Shabbat at Mussar Kallah IX, and is the further development of a number of ideas R’ Gil Student and I wrote for Mesuqim MiDevash.)

The question of holiness is central to the title phrase of the sedra of Qedoshim. “Qedoshim tihyu hi Qadosh Ani – Be qadosh [holy, sacred] for I Am Qadosh.” (Vayiqra 19:2) But what is qedushah?

Translating it as “sanctity” or “holiness” falls short as: (1) the meaning of the English is itself not too clear, (2) nor are we sure that they truly capture the connotations of the Hebrew original.

The Sifra[1], commenting on our verse, writes “’qedoshim tihyu': perushim tihyu – ‘be holy': you shall be separated”.

Along these lines, Rashi understands the verse as referring to the list of laws of intimacy with which the previous sedra concluded, as well as other transgressions. And he gives other examples where such a separation is associated with the concept of qedushah.

The Ramban (Nachmanides) writes “make yourself qadosh with that which is permitted to you” by refraining from the permitted.

It would seem that they are both defining qedushah as separation. But there is also a real difference. Rashi discusses things that are specifically prohibited. The Ramban is quite specifically speaking about separating oneself from things that are not the topic of a specific prohibition – there is no ban on the action, but rather the action isn’t in concert with being a holy person.

A parallel division exists in other discussions about qedushah.

In parashas Sheqalim, the portion discussing the mitzvah for each person to donate a 1/2 sheqel coin to the Temple (also counted for a census), we are told to take “half a sheqel of a sheqel haqodesh”. The Ramban (ad loc) explains that these sheqalim were considered sacred because they were used for holy purposes. The funds gathered by this census in the first year were donated towards the construction of the Tabernacle, other “sheqel haqodesh” were used for buying offerings and utensils for the Tabernacle or Temple, or for redeeming a first-born. Along similar lines, Rabbeinu Bachya (ad loc) writes, “Since all mitzvos are the core of holiness and some mitzvos require this currency,” the currency takes on a holiness corresponding to its use.

The Ramban continues, Hebrew is called leshon haqodesh – the holy language – because it was and continues to be used for holy purposes. It is the language in which G-d said “yehi or – let there be light”, in which He gave us the Torah and the Tanakh was written, the language in which our ancestors were named, etc…

However, the Ramban (Nachmanides) notes that the Rambam (Maimonides) has a very different understanding of why Hebrew is called “the holy language”. In his Guide for the Perplexed (3:8), Rambam explains that Hebrew is called sacred because it has no specific words for uniquely male and female body parts, for the acts that lead to conception of a child, nor does it have precise terms for the various bodily emissions and excretions.

Rabbi Shimon Romm [2] explains this dispute between Rambam and Ramban as being a fundamental disagreement over the nature of qedushah, holiness.

According to Ramban (Nachmanides), holiness comes from being committed for a purpose. When currency is used for a mitzvah it becomes sacred and when a language is used to create the world and convey the Torah it becomes sanctified.

According to the Rambam (Maimonides), however, holiness is not due to a positive usage but to a lack of diminution of its purity. A language is inherently sacred and only loses that status when it contains less than holy words. Presumably, the Rambam would explain that the sheqel haqodesh is called holy because, as the Ramban himself suggests at the beginning of his comments, the sheqel coins used in the Torah were entirely pure, lacking all dilution. This purity of content, rather than its sanctity of use, is what earned for these coins the title of qadosh. R’ Romm continued that it would seem that the Rashi we looked at agrees with the Rambam. By not engaging in prohibited action, one lives up to “be holy”.

Someone in the audience when I presented this material at Mussar Kallah IX suggested another way to understand the dispute. It could be that both sides agree in how they define qedushah — holiness. Rather, they disagree about the nature of the mitzvah. Rashi sees the obligation “qedoshim tihyu — be holy” as one to protect the holiness we already have; not to descend the ladder, so to speak. And therefore it’s accomplished by not tainting oneself with sin. The Ramban sees it as a duty to increase one’s holiness, to climb the ladder, and therefore to commit beyond what would otherwise be mandatory.

When a Mussarist wants to understand a middah, the first place to turn is a genre of mussar texts that are organized by middah. Most famously Orchos Tzadiqim and Mesilat Yesharim (Ways of the Righteous, and Path of the Just, respectively.) The last chapter of Mesilat Yesharim (ch. 26) discusses Qedushah. To quote Rav Shraga Simmons’ translation, in part:

Note the distinction between one who is Pure and one who is Holy. The earthy actions of the first are necessary ones, and he is motivated by necessity alone, so that his actions escape the evil in earthiness and remain pure. But they do not approach Holiness, for it were better if one could get along without them. One who is Holy, however, and clings constantly to his God, his soul traveling in channels of truth, amidst the love and fear of his Creator -such a person is as one walking before God in the Land of the Living, here in this world. …

In fine, Holiness consists in one’s clinging so closely to his God that in any deed he might perform he does not depart or move from the Blessed One, until the physical objects of which he makes use become more elevated because of his having used them, than he descends from his communion and from his high plane because of his having occupied himself with them. This obtains, however, only in relation to one whose mind and intelligence cling so closely to the greatness, majesty and Holiness of the Blessed One that it is as if he is united with the celestial angels while yet in this world….

According to Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzzato (the “Ramchal”), a focus on separation is more associated with purity than with holiness. Avoiding unnecessary entanglements with the physical “so that his actions escape the evil in earthiness and remain pure.” Qedushah is clinging to G-d.

Is this a shift in definition from that offered by the Sifra and discussed through the next millennium by Rashi, Rabbeinu Bachya, Nachmanides and Maimonides?

Rav Shimon Shkop (Sha’arei Yosher, introduction) argues that the Sifra’s comment cannot be an actual definition. He points out that separation as a definition would fail for the verse’s next clause – “for I [Hashem] am Qadosh”. There is no purpose or meaning in Hashem restraining Himself, no dangerous entanglements for Him to avoid. (For that matter, it is arguable that such separation on His part would mean the item in question would cease to exist!)

Perhaps we could also note that Nachmanides could not be understanding the Sifra as defining qedushah. You cannot translate a word using another conjugation of the same word. “Qadeish es atmekha bemah shemutar lakh — sanctify yourself with that which is permitted to you” therefore cannot be his elaboration of a definition. Rather, the Ramban is suggesting the way in which to obey the verse and become holy to someone who already knows how to translate the word.

So, qedushah is commitment to Hashem’s goal, which the Ramban is telling us we can reach by separation from the pursuit of other goals.

All that is left is the “simple” question of defining that goal.

Rav Shimon Shkop’s introduction opens (tr. mine):

BLESSED SHALL BE the Creator, and exalted shall be the Maker1, Who created us in His “Image” and in the likeness of His “Structure”, and planted eternal life within us, so that our greatest desire should be to do good to others, to individuals and to the masses, now and in the future, in imitation of the Creator (as it were). For everything He created and formed was according to His Will (may it be blessed), [that is] only to be good to the creations. So too His Will is that we walk in His ways. As it says “and you shall walk in His Ways” – that we, the select of what He made – should constantly hold as our purpose to sanctify our physical and spiritual powers for the good of the many, according to our abilities.

In my opinion, this whole concept is included in Hashem’s mitzvah “Be holy, [for I am Holy].” The Midrash (Leviticus, Emor, ch. 24) says about this verse: “Can it [truly] be ‘Like Me?’ This is why it continues, ‘for I am Holy’ to teach that My Sanctity is above yours.” And about the foundation of this mitzvah of sanctity the Toras Kohanim [ie the Sifra] has “‘be holy’ – be separate”. Nachmanides, in his commentary on the Torah, explains at length this notion of separation as it is stated in this mitzvah, that it is separation from excessive comfort and pleasure – even if they are actions that are not prohibited to us. In one illustrative statement, he writes that it is possible for a person to be disgusting with [what would otherwise be] the permission of the Torah, see his holy words there.

According to this, it would seem the Midrash is incomprehensible. What relevance does the concept of separation have to being similar to the Holy? The verse tells us with regard to this that His Will is not like this. As it says, “Can it [truly] be ‘Like Me?’ This is why it continues, ‘For I am holy’ to teach that My sanctity is above Yours.” This explanation is incumbent upon us to understand; in truth there is some similarity in the holiness He expects of us to His [Sanctity], except that His Holiness is more general and inclusive. If we say that the essential idea of the holiness He demands of us (in this mitzvah of “be holy”) is distance from the permissible, this kind of holiness has nothing to do with Him.5

And so, it appears to my limited thought that this mitzvah includes the entire foundation and root of the purpose of our lives. All of our work and effort should constantly be sanctified to doing good for the community. We should not use any act, movement, or get benefit or enjoyment that doesn’t have in it some element of helping another. And as understood, all holiness is being set apart for an honorable purpose – which is that a person straightens his path and strives constantly to make his lifestyle dedicated to the community. Then, anything he does even for himself, for the health of his body and soul he also associates to the mitzvah of being holy, for through this he can also do good for the masses. Through the good he does for himself he can do good for the many who rely on him. But if he derives benefit from some kind of permissible thing that isn’t needed for the health of his body and soul, that benefit is in opposition to holiness. For in this he is benefiting himself (for that moment as it seems to him), but no one else.

Maimonides would be bothered by this attempt to explain why Hashem created the universe. It requires assuming our mind can contain His “Thought”. (At the Kallah, this topic took on a life of its own.) However, this approach, that Hashem must have created the world to have someone to whom to be good is found in sources as diverse as Rav Saadia Gaon’s “Emunos veDeios” (an Aristotilian from 9th-10th cent Baghdad) to the Ramchal’s “Derekh Hashem” (an Italian Qabbalist, 18th cent CE). Even a Maimonidian, though, can accept the notion that this is how Hashem presents Himself to us; G-d as He appears through his actions as opposed to the unknowable G-d as He is. In any case…

G-d’s goal is to bestow good on others. Which paradoxically doesn’t mean doing everything for us and making our lives perfect, as that would deprive us of a greater good: the ability to emulate His Good and to bestow good to others. Ours and the world’s imperfections are areas where there is good left for us to bestow.

Is this not, after all, what Hillel famously told the prospective convert?

There is another story [this is the third in a sequence] with one non-Jew who came before Shammai. He said to him [the non-Jew to Shammai], “Convert me on the condition that you teach me the entire Torah while I stand on one leg.” He [Shammai] pushed him [away] with the builder’s  amah-stick which was in his hand.

He [the non-Jew] went before Hillel, who converted him. He [Hillel] said to him, “That which is hateful to you, do not do to your friend. This is the whole Torah in its entirety, the rest is its explanation. Go learn.”

Shabbos 55a

What then is the role of the more rite-like mitzvot? If Hashem’s goal for us is to emulate Him in being good to others, why do we need kashrut, Shabbat, mezuzah, etc, etc, etc…? (This topic also took on a life of its own). I suggested two coexisting reasons:

First, such mitzvot teach discipline, they habituate us in making more thoughtful decisions. For example, one doesn’t just see food and eat it, one has to pay attention to what one is eating and how the food is prepared. Second, one needs to develop a relationship with G-d in order to accomplish this goal. One cannot bestow Hashem’s good upon others without knowing what that good is. Such knowledge requires the “go learn”, both from Torah texts and from the experiences provided by the mitzvot that mediate the relationship between man and G-d.

Even relaxation can be sanctified; if one rests for the purpose of being able to continue doing one’s mission in life without burnout. To protect future productivity at this goal by not trying to exceed one’s capacity in the short term.

So, you might have started reading this essay picturing a holy person as a hermit in a cave, an ascetic who spends his day in prayer. Referring back to the title of the post, you might have assumed that separation of holiness is in tension with our duty to nosei be’ol im chaveiro — share the burden of the other, to help him “pull his yoke”. Conflicting values we must balance. This is quite far from Rav Shimon’s definition; the separation isn’t asceticism, rather a very focus on being good to others.

We say in the Amidah: “You are Qadosh, and Your Name [Reputation] is Qadosh, and qedoshim praise You every day. Selah! [For you are G-d, King, Great and Qadosh. –Sepharad] Baruch Atah … the Qadosh G-d.”

It is not coincidence that there are three clauses, and three iterations of the word “Qadosh” in the verse at the heart of Qedushah (Isaiah 6:3). As we quote in the prayer UVa leTzion, Targum Yonatan explains that verse as follows: “Qadosh in the heavens above, the home of His Presence; Qadosh on the earth, the product of His Might; Qadosh forever and ever is Hashem Tzevakos – the whole world is full of the Radiance of His Glory.” The “home of His Glory” is where Hashem is Qadosh. The earth, is where Hashem’s name, how people perceive him, is Qadosh. And the qedoshim, the people who allow others to experience Hashem’s good, fill the world with His Glory – their sanctity is his praise.

According to Rav Shimon Shkop, this blessings becomes, “You are committed to bestow food on others, and your reputation is that of an undivided commitment to bestowing good on others, and people who live entirely for sharing your good with others praise you. Selah!” It is not simply that the class of people who are committed to working for others rather than being self-focused also praise Hashem. It is working for the betterment of others which itself is praise.

There are a number of prayers that require a minyan: the repetition of the amidah, and a class of prayers called davar shebiqdushah — proclamations of holiness. Among these prayers are Barekhu, Qaddish and Qedushah. In case you question whether our final definition of holiness is authentic, notice this: One cannot say the prayer of Qedushah alone.


[1] The Sifra, also called Torat Kohanim, is attributed to Rav (175-247 CE). Rav also founded of the Babylonian academy of Sura, which centuries later produced the Talmud. Rav’s real name, was Abba Akira, Abba the tall. He frequently appears in the Talmud, consistently under his honorific.

[2] Rabbi Shimon Romm was a student of the pre-war Mirrer Yeshiva who participated in their flight from Nazi-occupied Vilna to Shanghai. He became a rabbi in Washington Heights, NY and a rosh yeshiva in Yeshiva University. Thanks to R’ Gil Student for relaying this thought.

Shaarei Yosher, sec. 1: Mission – part 1

Shaarei Yosher was written by Rav Shim’on Shkop (1860-October 22, 1939), and the body of the text deals with the principles by which doubt is resolved in court cases and in legislation, and the principles by which halakhah is set.

We will be dealing, however, with the first part of the introduction. The introduction opens with an explanation of the meaning of life and man’s purpose of existence, and then segues from there to a quite usual thanking his benefactors and others who made the work possible. One of his accomplishments is to place their contribution to the work within the context of life as a whole.

“An uninvestigated life is not worth living”, as Socrates said. But a life that is well understood, yet for which one did not define goals, is also of little value. One can find oneself chasing a life’s dream only to realize afterward that all that effort did not accomplish what one is striving for. Before climbing a ladder to get to the top of a building, it pays to check if the ladder climbs the right building. In the ideal, every decision we make each day should be tied back to some larger goal, which in turn fits within an even larger goal, so that every act is meaningful in terms of one’s “Mission Statement”. In that way, every act has meaning.

So, every person should be seeking to define for themselves that “Mission Statement”.

There are many ways that the goal of life is defined within the various streams of Jewish Tradition. One might say they are all aspects of the same basic idea, different descriptions of the same thing. However, the choice of which points one chooses to give more attention will impact one’s day-to-day decision.

Here we will explore Rav Shim’on’s. He opens:

Blessed shall be the Creator, and exalted shall be the Maker, Who created us in His “Image” and in the likeness of His “Structure”, and planted eternal life within us,
יתברך הבורא ויתעלה היוצר שבראנו בצלמו ובדמות תבניתו, וחיי עולם נטע בתוכנו

Note that the initials of the opening four words are Y-HV-H, the Tetragrammaton. A number of texts begin similarly, such as Maimonides’ Mishneh Torah and the Ramchal’s Mesilas Yesharim.

The original Hebrew reads: Yisbarakh HaBorei VeYis`alah HaYotzeir. To translate precisely but less readably, “The One Who creates ex nihilo will cause Himself to be blessed, and the One Who gives Form will cause Himself to be exalted.”

This line is more worthy of contemplation than of my simply suggesting a possible interpretation:

  • These words are conjugated in the reflexive. What does it mean that we are saying these are things G-d will do for Himself? And if He will be causing His Own blessing and exultation, what is He waiting for before doing so?
  • Also, why does Rav Shimon pair G-d’s ability to makes something from nothing with the notion of blessing, whereas G-d as the One Who gives those things form and function, using the same term Hebrew uses for a potter, with His being exalted and “uplifted” or “raised” in some way?

Notice that Rav Shimon draws our attention to being betzelem E-lokim, in the “image” of G-d and associates this with eternal life. In order to merit permanence, one must be in the image of the Permanent, and the only things we make that can persist until the end of history are those that fit Hashem’s Plan for the end of history.

In this, Shaarei Yosher follows standard Litvisher thinking, that we are placed in this world to hone our tzelem E-lokim, to perfect ourselves and be whole. (In contrast to Chassidus, for example, which focuses on cleaving to G-d.  For an introduction to this topic, see Aspaqlaria for Lekh Lekha 5757), and for a more complete set of meanderings, see the Forks in the Hashkafic Road category of this blog.)

But what is the tzelem E-lokim? How do we define wholeness and perfection? Effectively, all we have said so far is that our task in life is to become as good as possible at accomplishing His Goals, and to internalize them to make them ours. “הוא היה אומר: עשה רצונו כרצונך, כדי שיעשה רצונך כרצונו — He [Rabban Gamliel the son of Rabbi Yehudah haNasi] would say: Make His Will like your will, so that He will make your will like His Will.” (Avos 2:4)

We haven’t really found our Mission Statement until we understand how G-d expects us to understand and further His Goals. Then we can make ourselves and our actions in His “Image”.

That’s the question for the next shiur.

Shaarei Yosher, sec. 1: Mission – part 2

… so that our greatest desire should be to do good to others, to individuals and to the masses, now and in the future, in imitation of the Creator (as it were).

שיהיה אדיר חפצנו, להיטיב עם זולתנו, ליחיד ולרבים בהוה ובעתיד בדמות הבורא כביכול,

We saw that Rav Shimon defines the goal of life in terms of perfection of one’s image of G-d, and here we see what image Hashem gives to emulate — to be good to others.

I believe Rav Shimon mentioned “to individuals and to the masses” is because these are often very different temperaments. The person who quietly slips money to a neighbor who is out of work is a very different kind of giving than the activist who organized annual rallies to free Soviet Jewry. We need to look at the nature of giving on both levels: one-on-one and in terms of communal work.

Second, Rav Shimon Shkop speaks of “in the present and in the future”. It is possible that perhaps giving too much now will hamper our ability to give in the future. We need to balance our production with developing our capacity to produce. Rav Shimon will speak more about this later.

Last, this segment concludes by connected this idea back to yesterday’s point. To be a bestower of good to others is to be in G-d’s “Image”.


שוב מעשה בנכרי אחד שבא לפני שמאי אמר לו גיירני ע”מ שתלמדני כל התורה כולה כשאני עומד על רגל אחת דחפו באמת הבנין שבידו בא לפני הלל גייריה אמר לו דעלך סני לחברך לא תעביד זו היא כל התורה כולה ואידך פירושה הוא זיל גמור:

There is another story [this is the third in a sequence] with one non-Jew who came before Shammai. He said to him [the non-Jew to Shammai], “Convert me on the condition that you teach me the entire Torah while I stand on one leg.” He [Shammai] pushed him [away] with the builder’s  amah-stick which was in his hand.

He [the non-Jew] went before Hillel, who converted him. He [Hillel] said to him, “That which is hateful to you, do not do to your friend. This is the whole Torah in its entirety, the rest is its explanation. Go learn.”

– Shabbos 55a

Sidenote: The prospective convert’s expression “while I stand on one leg” is usually taken to mean a measure of time. That he wanted Shammai to explain the entire Torah fast enough that the questioner wouldn’t yet lose balance standing one one leg. However, “regel” can also be a pillar or foundation point. He could have been asking to be taught the whole Torah in a way that gave him a single core principle. Which Hillel did.

There are two basic directions in which explanations to this story take, both given by Rashi (ad loc):

דעלך סני לחברך לא תעביד: ריעך וריע אביך אל תעזוב (משלי כז) זה הקב”ה אל תעבור על דבריו שהרי עליך שנאוי שיעבור חבירך על דבריך

That which is hateful to you, do not do to your friend: “Do not abandon your Friend and your father’s Friend” (Proverbs 27) — this is the Holy One blessed be He. Do not violate His words, for it would be hateful to you if your friend would violate your words.

ל”א חבירך ממש כגון גזלה גנבה ניאוף ורוב המצות:

Another understanding: Your friend literally. Such as robbery, burglary and most of the mitzvos.

Rav Shimon would clearly take the second approach in this gemara. Everything revolves around the interpersonal. I recently encountered a similar idea about conversion. Here is how the gemara describes introducing the prospective convert to Jewish life:

אם אומר יודע אני ואיני כדאי מקבלין אותו מיד ומודיעין אותו מקצת מצות קלות ומקצת מצות חמורות ומודיעין אותו עון לקט שכחה ופאה ומעשר עני ומודיעין אותו ענשן של מצות אומרים לו הוי יודע שעד שלא באת למדה זו אכלת חלב אי אתה ענוש כרת חללת שבת אי אתה ענוש סקילה ועכשיו אכלת חלב ענוש כרת חללת שבת ענוש סקילה וכשם שמודיעין אותו ענשן של מצות כך מודיעין אותו מתן שכרן אומרים לו הוי יודע שהעולם הבא אינו עשוי אלא לצדיקים וישראל בזמן הזה אינם יכולים לקבל לא רוב טובה ולא רוב פורענות ואין מרבין עליו ואין מדקדקין עליו קיבל מלין אותו מיד…

[If the convert, after the sages attempt to dissuade him] says, “I know, and yet I am not worthy”, they accept him immediately,

  • and inform him of a small portion of the minor and major commandments;
  • and they inform him of the sin of [keeping] the leqet, shiqechah, pei’ah and ma’aser sheini [gifts every farmer must leave for the poor];
  • and they inform him of the punishment for mitzvos … [examples ellided];
  • And just as they inform him of the punishment for [violating] the mitzvos, so too they inform him of the reward of the commandments. They say to him: Know that that the World-to-Come is kept in store only for the righteous, and that Israel at this time is not able to bear too much goodness or too much punishment.

But they do not increase upon him, and are not exact with him.  If he accepts, these ideas circumcise him immediately…

– Yevamos 47a-b

Notice, the convert is taught a sense of the lifestyle of the Jew, the laws of sharing one’s crops, and the magnitude of what he is about to accept in terms of reward and punishment. The broad picture — “they do not increase upon him, and are not exact with him”. Out of place would be singling out the mitzvos of sharing one’s crop through leqet, shikhechah, pei’ah and ma’aser ani — if it were not for Hillel’s point. The convert is taught that all of Torah stands upon such sharing!

(ויקרא יט) ואהבת לרעך כמוך.  רבי עקיבה אומר זהו כלל גדול בתורה.  בן עזאי אומר (בראשית ה) זה ספר תולדות אדם זה כלל גדול מזה.

“And you shall love your friends as yourself [I am Hashem].” (Vayiqra 19). Rabbi Aqiva said, “This is a great principle in the Torah. Ben Azai said, “‘This is the book of the generations of Adam’ (Genesis 5) — this is a greater principle than that.”

-Yerushalmi Nedarim 9:4 (vilna 30b)

R’ Aqiva and Ben Azzai argue over which verse is the one foundation. Rabbi Aqiva suggests one that applies only to people who qualify as “friends” (perhaps Jews, perhaps only observant Jews, perhaps also non-Jews who observe the 7 laws of Noah). Ben Azzzai instead says the entire Torah is founded on a verse that emphasized the fraternal bonds of all humanity — we are all children of Adam and Eve.

This poses a fundamental question: How can the single basis of the entire Torah be described as being created “in His ‘Image’ and in the likeness of His ‘Structure’…, so that our greatest desire should be to do good to others… in imitation of the Creator (as it were)” (as Rav Shimon puts it)? Why then do we have all these halakhos about prayer and holidays, kashrus and Shabbos… in short, all of the mitzvos that mediate the relationship between man and G-d or that otherwise do not involve other people?

We will explore that question later. For now, we can note that Rav Shim’on’s approach is well sourced.

Shaarei Yosher, sec. 1: Mission – part 3

For everything He created and formed was according to His Will (may it be blessed)[1], [that is] only to be good to the creations. So too His Will is that we walk in His ways. As it says “and you shall walk in His Ways” (Devarim 28:9)
שכל מה שברא ויצר היה רצונו יתברך רק להיטיב עם הנבראים, כן רצונו ית׳ שנהלך בדרכיו כאמור “והלכת בדרכיו”,

Now Rav Shimon Shkop explains how bestowing good on others is the essence of being in the Image of G-d.

Why did Hashem create the universe? The truth is, we can’t ever know; humans are incapable of knowing the “Mind” of the Creator — His “Thoughts” are Infinite, Transcendent, and do not resemble our trains of thought that evolve within time.  What we can try to answer is: What did Hashem show us of why He created the universe? What does G-d want us to emulate?

Well, whose need does creation fill? It can’t be Hashem’s need, as His Perfection precludes His having any needs. Hashem thus had to be addressing the created’s needs. Creation is therefore (again, to the extent we can understand it) an act that is purely the bestowal of good on others — “[E]verything He created and formed was … only to be good to the creations.” So too His Will is that we walk in His ways.

The Ramchal phrases it thus, “It is the nature of good to have someone to whom to be good.” (Derech Hashem 1:2:1) And centuries earlier, on the other side of the qabbalah-rationalism spectrum Rav Saadia Ga’on reached the same conclusion in Emunos veDei’os. The human being can be defined as a receptacle for emanations of Divine Good and sustenance, in shorter and therefore useful jargon: “a keli for shefa“. Simply and personally put, you and I exist so that G-d would have a recipient of His Good.

And yet, there is much unhappiness in this world. Hashem could have insured that receiving shefa (emanations of Divine Good and sustenance) would make us happy, but He didn’t. While it is important to note the difference between bestowing good and making happy, that isn’t enough to explain why this would be true. Suffering, even if it is in some cosmic sense “good”, is a lack of goodness in how that cosmos was created. After all, we are speaking of the Bestower who defined the emotion of happiness, and created within us the mechanisms that generate it. He could have chosen to make the two identical, that true good and only true good would make us happy. Man is therefore lacking in two ways: we are not receiving His full goodness, and amongst that Divine Good that we lack is that very union between what we want and what is good for us.

We are left with a dilemma. We would conclude that Hashem created imperfect recepticals, and that is why we are not receiving the full shefa. However, we would need to explain why a Perfect Creator would make beings that don’t perfectly fulfill His purpose for them.

In the Torah, Hashem introduces the idea of creating people with the words “let Us make man in Our Image, like our Semblance” (Bereishis 1:26). The ultimate good the Creator has to share with us is His own “nature”, the gift of being free-willed, having the capacity to make meaningful decisions, to create, and to use that creation to address the needs of others.

There is unhappiness in the world so that we have the opportunity to give. As Rav Shimon puts it, Hashem created everything so that He could be good to them and part of that is that “His Will is that we walk in His ways”. Counter-intuitively, the creation of a universe that has no lacks would actually lack the greatest good — the opportunity to be in Hashem’s Image, to be a giver.

Eav Eliyahu E. Dessler takes a similar position on what it means to be in the “Image” of G-d. See the following, from the beginning of his “Qunterus haChessed” in Michtav meiEliyahu vol. 1:

When the Almighty created human beings He made them capable of both giving and taking. The faculty of giving is a sublime power; it is one of the attributes of the blessed Creator of all things. He is the Giver par excellence; His mercy, His bounty and His goodness extend to all His creatures. His giving is pure giving for He takes nothing in return. He can take nothing for He lacks nothing, as the verse says, “…If you are righteous what do you give to Him?”

Our service to Him is not for His need but for our own, since we need a means of expressing our gratitude to Him.

Man has been granted this sublime power of giving, enabling him too to be merciful, to bestow happiness, to give of himself. “G-d created man in his own image.”


[1] (All honorifics, such as “may it be blessed” and “may His memory be a blessing” appear in the original as acronyms of common idioms that the reader could read without losing their train of thought. Since this is impossible in translation, I chose to hereafter omit them. For similar reasons, “Moses our teacher” or “Moses our teacher, peace be upon him”, I usually rendered simply “Moses” for readability.)

Shaarei Yosher, sec. 1: Mission – conclusion

[To repeat the first clause of the sentence:
So too His Will is that we walk in His ways. As it says “and you shall walk in His Ways” (Devarim 28:9)]
כן רצונו ית׳ שנהלך בדרכיו כאמור “והלכת בדרכיו”,
– that we, the select of what He made – should constantly hold as our purpose to sanctify our physical and spiritual powers for the good of the many, according to our abilities.
… היינו שנהיה אנחנו בחירי יצוריו, מגמתנו תמיד להקדיש כוחותינו הגופניים והרוחניים לטובת הרבים, כפי ערכנו,

Here Rav Shimon Shkop introduces the notion of qedushah, holiness, and applies it to our topic. Bestowing good to others is not only the emulation of the Creator (who created only for the benefit of His creatures), but it is also the essence of qedushah, holiness.

What is holiness? So far all we see is that holiness is defined by dedication; dedication to doing Hashem’s work of bestowing good.

When the Torah speaks of taharah,  the proposition is “mi-”, from, e.g. “vetiharo min hatzora’as”– and he [the kohein] purifies him from the [tum’ah associated with the spirito-somatic illness,] tzora’as“. What is taharah? While many object to translating it as “spiritual purity”, the word is used to describe the “pure gold” of the menorah, “zahav tahor”. Taharah is freeing the soul from a kind of adulteration, just as it describes gold that is free of impurities.  The tahor soul is one that is free from the habits and effects of living within an animal body.

On the other hand, qedushah is about pull. The golden tzitz on the kohein gadol’s forehead reads “qadesh Lashem”. Qedushah is being set aside for a given purpose. The wedding formula, “Hereby you are mequdeshes li…, committed to me…” uses the term where the “to” isn’t Hashem’ purpose. But in usual usage, if the “le-” is not provided, it means creation’s Ultimate Purpose, “for My Honor, lekhvodi, I have created it”.

Qedushah is thus being dedicated purpose of bestowing Hashem’s good to others.

This is Rav Shimon’s segue into the next topic, which I will be labeling “sec. 2: Sanctity”.


What we have established in this first section:

  • Man is created in the image of G-d and to emulate Him.
  • Hashem needs nothing, and thus the universe could only have been created for our sake. (Even the unpleasant parts, since without them have no opportunities to imitate and partake of His Ultimate Good.)
  • Therefore, just as He acts for the good of others, emulating Him means bestowing good on others — and wanting to.
  • Bestowing good must include both relating to others as individuals as well as a communal focus.
  • This includes both doing good in the present and preparing to be able to be good in the future.
  • Qedushah is defined as our commitment to this goal.

Shaarei Yosher, sec. 2: Qedushah – part 1

In my opinion, this whole concept is included in Hashem’s mitzvah “Be holy, [for I am Holy].” The Midrash (Leviticus, Emor, ch. 24) says about this verse: “Can it [truly] be ‘Like Me?’ This is why it continues, ‘for I am Holy’ to teach that My Sanctity is above yours.”
ולדעתי כל ענין זה נכלל במצות ה׳ של “קדושים תהיו”, דהנה במדרש ויקרא פרק כ״ד אמור על מקרא זה: “יכול כמוני? תלמוד לאמר ‘כי קדוש אני’, קדושתי למעלה מקדושתכם”,

Rav Shimon already wrote that our job is to bestow good on others, in imitation of the purpose of creation, and used the term qedushah to refer to the commitment of our abilities to that goal.

Here R’ Shimon adds that what we call “commitment” with respect to people is different in kind that Hashem’s commitment. Hashem is absolutely One. He has only One Goal. Purity of purpose is inherent.

For people, our natural state is to be in a swirl of motivations, “tov vara be’irbuvya — good and evil in mixture”. Perfect purity of purpose is an unreachable goal to continually strive strive for.

Thus, Hashem adds “for I am Holy” — that His Sanctity is above ours.

(See also the connection between the sin of eating the fruit of the tree of knowledge and this element of the human condition I drew in my earlier post “The origins of imperfection“.)

Shaarei Yosher, sec. 2: Qedushah – part 2

And about the foundation of this mitzvah of sanctity the Toras Kohanim has “‘be holy’ – be separate”. Nachmanides, in his commentary on the Torah, explains at length this notion of separation as it is stated in this mitzvah, that it is separation from excessive comfort and pleasure – even if they are actions that are not prohibited to us. In one illustrative statement, he writes that it is possible for a person to be disgusting with [what would otherwise be] the permission of the Torah, see his holy words there.
וביסוד מצוה זו של קדושה איתא בתורת כהנים: “‘קדושים תהיו’ – פרושים תהיו” ,והרמב״ן ז״ל בפירושו על התורה האריך לבאר ענין פרישות האמור במצוה זו שהוא להתרחק מן הנאות ותענוגים יתירים, אף על פי שהם מעשים שאינן אסורים לנו, ובציור מבליט אומר שאפשר לאדם להיות נבל ברשות התורה ועין שם בדבריו הקדושים

Rav Shimon Shkop defined qedushah in terms of commitment to the cause of providing good to others. So he has to address this medrash (Toras Kohanim, a/k/a the Sifra, which predates the mishnah) that appears to be defining the mitzvah of being holy as separation. In particular, the Ramban’s (much quoted) further explanation, that this is separation is from things which are permitted by the black-letter of the law, but are still disgusting or self-belittling behaviors.

Even if we find a way to say that both definitions boil down to the same thing, there is a fundamental difference in attitude between the formulations, one that would lead to differences in action:

The Sifra could be taken to mean that holiness inheres in withdrawal from the pleasures of this world, that it’s associated with austerity and asceticism.

Rav Shimon is drawing a picture of holiness that is in action, not in cloistered retreat. It is in elevating the lot of others, not an other-worldly lifestyle.

The rest of this section is dedicated to showing how his conclusion is actually the more correct understanding of the verse and medrash.

Shaarei Yosher, sec. 2: Qedushah – part 3

According to this, it would seem the Midrash is incomprehensible.1- What relevance does the concept of separation have to being similar to the Holy? The verse tells us with regard to this that His Will is not like this. As it says, “Can it [truly] be ‘Like Me?’ This is why it continues, ‘For I am holy’ to teach that My sanctity is higher than yours.”
ועל פי זה לכאורה דברי המדרש אינם מובנים, איך שייך בענין פרישות להתדמות להקב״ה שעל זה השמיענו הכתוב שלא כן רצונו ית׳, שהרי אומר “יכול כמוני? תלמוד לאמר ‘כי קדוש אני’, קדושתי למעלה מקדושתכם”,

Rav Shimon’s defense of the notion that holiness is a stance of action, in light of a medrash in the Sifra which, as the Ramban puts it, says that “be holy” entails “separation from things that are permitted to you” opens with two questions that show the medrash and Ramban cannot be taken at face value.

First, the concept of separation has nothing to do with the Almighty.

Speaking from a theological perspective for a moment, if Hashem separated Himself from something, would that thing continue to exist? For that matter, would the time itself in which He is supposedly separate from it exist either?

As we saw, the issue of commitment is inherently different when it comes to people as when it comes to Hashem yisbarakh. Hashem is One. He has One Will, One Goal, and thus one Purpose that He is thus fully committed to.

Not only doesn’t Hashem have other side-interests, He does not even separate from those things people do that are at odds with His goal. In Tomer Devorah ch. 1, Rav Moshe Cordevero explains the Thirteen Attributes of Divine Mercy as described in Mikhah 7:17-20. On the first middah, “מי א-ל כמוך — Who is a G-d like You”, he writes (tr unknown):

This refers to the Holy One, Blessed is He, as a patient King Who bears insult in a manner that is above human understanding. For behold, without doubt, there is nothing hidden from His providence. Furthermore, there is no moment when man is not nourished and does not exist by virtue of the divine power which flows down upon him. It follows that no man ever sins against God without the divine affluence pouring into him at that very moment, enabling him to exist and to move his limbs. Despite the fact that he uses it for sin, that power is not withheld from him in any way. But the Holy One, Blessed is He, bears this insult and continues to empower him to move his limbs even though he uses the power in that moment for sin and perversity offending the Holy One, Blessed is He, who, nonetheless, suffer it. Nor must you say that He cannot withhold that good, God forfend, for it lies in His power in the moment it takes to say the word ‘moment’ to wither the sinner’s hand or foot, as he did to Jeroboam (Melachim I 8:4). And yet though it lies in His power to arrest divine flow – and He might have said: ‘If you sin against Me do so under your own power, not with Mine’ – He does not, on this account, withold His goodness from man, bearing the insult, pouring out His power and bestowing of His goodness. This is to be insulted and bear the insult, beyond words….
מורה על היות הקב”ה מלך נעלב, סובל עלבון מה שלא יכילהו רעיון. הרי אין דבר נסתר מהשגחתו בלי ספק, ועוד אין רגע שלא יהיה האדם נזון ומתקיים מכח עליון השופע עליו, והרי תמצא שמעולם לא חטא אדם נגדו שלא יהיה הוא באותו הרגע ממש שופע שפע קיומו ותנועת אבריו, עם היות שהאדם חוטא בכח ההוא לא מנעו ממנו כלל אלא סובל הקב”ה עלבון כזה להיות משפיע בו כח תנועות אבריו, והוא מוציא אותו כח באותו רגע בחטא ועון ומכעיס והקב”ה סובל. ולא תאמר שאינו יכול למנוע ממנו הטוב ההוא ח”ו שהרי בכחו ברגע כמימרא ליבש ידיו ורגליו כעין שעשה לירבעם, ועכ”ז שהכח בידו להחזיר הכח הנשפע ההוא והיה לו לומר כיון שאתה חוטא נגדי תחטא בשלך לא בשלי, לא מפני זה מנע טובו מן האדם אלא סבל עלבון, והשפיע הכח והטיב לאדם טובו. הרי זה עלבון וסבלנות מה שלא יסופר…

Divine Compassion includes giving us the free will to use the very existence and power Hashem bestows upon us in rebellion against him, and yet Hashem continues to it grant us. There truly is no concept of separation — not even from our ulterior aims — with regard to Hashem.

In contrast, within the human condition, a conflict of motivations is not only possible, but a constant. Until Bereishis 1:4, “וַיַּבְדֵּל אֱ-לֹהִים בֵּין הָאוֹר וּבֵין הַחֹשֶׁךְ — and G-d separated between the light and the darkness”, Chazal say that until then “אור וחשך משתמשין בערבוביא — light and darkness were used in a mixture” (c.f. Rashi ad loc.) Humanity then violates this separation, when Chavah and Adam ate the fruit bein hashemashos, at the end of the sixth day (Sanhedrin 38b). A period of time when day and night — light and darkness overlap. The fruit was of the “עֵץ הַדַּעַת טוֹב וָרָע — tree of knowledge of good and evil.” (Bereishis 2:9) Not knowledge of good and of evil, but thought that was good-and-evil, mixed. And ever since then, every decision man makes is an irbuviah, the product of an inseperable blend of motives.

Rav Nosson Zvi Finkel, the Alter of Slabodka, was once diagnosed with a serious illness; he needed a major medical center. He was given information about each of his choices, and asked which one he would go to. The Alter chose the hospital in St. Petersburg. Upon his return, someone from the community who had noticed that he hadn’t been around asked where he had been. The Alter replied that he had been to St. Petersburg. The man asked why. He answered, “I went to see a push-button umbrella.”

His students asked the Alter of Slabodka why he said this. After all, the decision to go to St. Petersburg was made after hearing all his options, much consideration and deliberation about which was the best hospital for his illness. Why did he say it was about an umbrella?

The Alter explained that a short while earlier, he was traveling around the region on yeshiva business and had arrived in St. Petersburg. He was amazed by this new invention he saw there, an umbrella that opens with the push of the umbrella. Laying in his hospital bed, the Alter realized that the experience colored his decision. A component of the decision was his association of the city with the latest invention and his desire to see them.

Irbuvia. A constant mixture of emotions. No good deed lacks some selfish side-motivation, no matter how small. Which is why many shuls require appeals to publicly announce donations in order to raise enough money to operate. The question is how to separate out the holy and the ideal among our motives rather than be moved by a mixture of good and evil.

So, a medrash addressing the words in the Torah, “be holy for I am Holy” can’t be saying that holiness itself is defined by separation. That explanation fails on the second clause — Hashem needs no such separation, and never does indeed separate. Rather, Rav Shimon will explain, it is giving separation as the means by which implement the mitzvah.

Shaarei Yosher, sec. 2: Qedushah – part 4

2- It is more difficult to understand “My sanctity is higher than yours.” This explanation is incumbent upon us to understand – in truth there is some similarity in the holiness He expects of us to His [Holiness], except that His Holiness is more general and inclusive. If we say that the essential idea of the holiness He demands of us (in this mitzvah of “be holy”) is distance from the permissible, that kind of holiness has nothing to do with Him.
וביותר קשה להבין מה שמסיק “קדושתי למעלה מקדושתכם”, דבמובן זה עלינו להבין, דבאמת יש דמיון בהקדושה שה׳ דורש מאתנו לקדושתו ית׳, אלא שקדושתו יותר כוללת ומקפת, ואם נאמר דעיקד מובן הקדושה, שה׳ דורש מאתנו במצוה זו של “קדושים תהיו” להתרחק מן המותרות, קדושה זו אינה מתיחסת כלל לה׳ ית׳.

Rav Shimon is raising objections to the naive understanding that the Sifra and the Ramban are defining holiness as separation. His first objection was that the pasuq in question continues, “ki qadosh Ani — for I am holy” and G-d’s sanctity could not possibly involve separation.

Here Rav Shimon Shkop furthers the question by discussing the next part of the medrash. We are supposed to be holy in imitation of HQBH (“for I am holy”) and yet as the Sifra emphasizes, “My sanctity is higher than yours.” G-d’s sanctity is more general and inclusive, ours a mere shadow. So, if the separation from the permissible, austerity and asceticism, were actually the definition of the qedushah we strive for, then G-d’s sanctity would necessarily not only involve separation, but be an absolute and total separation.

Rav Shim’on’s point is also implied in the Ramban’s wording. The medrash says “קדושים תהיו – פרושים תהיו — ‘be holy’ – separate yourselves”. Had the Ramban thought this was a definition, he would not have used the word qodesh; a definition that includes the word you are trying to explain is worthless. And yet the Ramban does so, when he includes a quote of the gemara’s comment on this verse “קדש את עצמך במותר לך — sanctify yourself with that which is permissable to you.

So, the Sifra is telling us that in order to be holy, we much separate from something. But holiness isn’t the separation itself. Next Rav Shim’on will relate this idea back to his definition of qedushah, that it is commitment to Hashem’s goal of bestowing His good on others.

Shaarei Yosher, sec. 2: Qedushah – part 5

And so, it appears to my limited thought that this mitzvah includes the entire foundation and root of the purpose of our lives. All of our work and effort should constantly be sanctified to doing good for the community. We should not use any act, movement, or get benefit or enjoyment that doesn’t have in it some element of helping another. And as understood, all holiness is being set apart for an honorable purpose…
לכן נראה לפי עניות דעתי, שבמצוה זו כלול כל יסוד ושורש מגמת תכלית חיינו, שיהיו כל עבודתנו ועמלנו תמיד מוקדשים לטובת הכלל, שלא נשתמש בשום מעשה ותנועה, הנאה ותענוג שלא יהיה בזה איזה ענין לטובת זולתנו, וכמובן בכל הקדשות שהוא התיחדות למטרה נכבדה,

So, we well established that qedushah isn’t inherent in the concept of separation, but in being separated for an honorable goal. Whether that’s when the groom declares that his bride is “hereby mequdeshes to me” or when the kohein‘s tzitz adjures all those around him to be “qadosh Lashem“. Much rides in the preposition, “le-” (to) and what the separation is for.

לטובת זולתנו — for the good of others!

Continuing with the haqdamah:

… which is that a person straightens his path and strives constantly to make his lifestyle dedicated to the community. Then, anything he does even for himself, for the health of his body and soul he also associates to the mitzvah of being holy, for through this he can also do good for the masses. Through the good he does for himself he can do good for the many who rely on him. But if he derives benefit from some kind of permissible thing that isn’t needed for the health of his body and soul, that benefit is in opposition to holiness. For in this he is benefiting himself (for that moment as it seems to him), but to no one else does it have any value.
והנה כשהאדם מישר הליכותיו ושואף שתמיד יהיו דרכי חייו מוקדשים להכלל, אז כל מה שעושה גם לעצמו להבראת גופו ונפשו הוא מתיחס גם כן אל מצות קדושה, שעל ידי זה יטיב גם לרבים, שבטובתו לעצמו הוא מטיב עם הרבים הצריכים לו, אבל אם הוא נהנה הנאה מן סוג המותריות, שאינן דרושות להבראת גופו ונפשו, הנאה זו היא נגד הקדושה, שבזה הוא מטיב לעצמו לרגע לפי דמיונו, ולזולתו אין שום תועלת.

Rather than qedushah being separation from rest, relaxation or luxury, Rav Shimon shows a way to sanctify these personal pleasures. If someone’s life is committed to doing good for others, and these joys are taken for the sake of being able to continue giving, without exhaustion (physical or mental), burnout, losing one’s patience with the recipient, etc… then they too are qadosh.


(Have people noticed the pattern that this material under the line are my “riffs” on Rav Shimon’s themes?)

It says in Shema (Devarim 6:5)

וְאָהַבְתָּ אֵת ה’ אֱ-לֹהֶיךָ, בְּכָל לְבָבְךָ וּבְכָל נַפְשְׁךָ וּבְכָל מְאֹדֶךָ.

You shall love Hashem your G-d with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your resources.

To which the Sifri comments (famously quoted by Rashi):

בשני יצריך. ד”א: “בכל לבבך” — שלא יהיה לבך חלוק על המקום

With both your inclinations [yeitzer hara and yeitzer hatov].
Another idea: “With all your heart” — that your heart should not be divided about the Omnipresent.

In general, the two-veislevavekha” [your heart] emphasizes the heart’s conflicted, dialectic and ambivalent nature. The synonym “libekha“, with one veis, is used when we aren’t speaking of internal conflict. Thus, the Sifri’s interpretations are compelled by the wording, “all of your levav“.

Ideally, all of a person’s actions are “להיטיב עם זולתנו, ליחיד ולרבים בהוה ובעתיד בדמות הבורא כביכול — to do good to others, to individuals and to the masses, now and in the future, in imitation of the Creator (as it were)”, as Rav Shimon wrote earlier.

Satisfying one’s desires, even when within the black-letter aspect of halakhah, still violates the law. It is being “despicable with the permission of the Torah”, as the Ramban puts it, and so we are called by the Sifra to “sanctify yourself with what is permitted to you.”

How does one serve Hashem even with one’s yeitzer hara? When one satistfies one’s desires solely to be more capable of doing good for others in the future. That is living with an undivided heart, in imitation of the Unity of the Creator.

Shaarei Yosher, sec. 2: Qedushah – Conclusion

In this way, the concept of separation is a consequence of the underlying basis of the mitzvah of holiness, which is recognizable in practice in the ways a person acts. But with insight and the calling of spirituality this mitzvah broadens to include everything a person causes or does even between him and the Omnipresent. In relation to this, this holiness is comparable to the Holiness of the Creator in whatever little similarity. Just as the Act of the Holy One in all of creation, and in each and every moment that He continues to cause the universe to exist; all His actions are sanctified to the good of others, so too it is His Will that our actions be constantly sanctified to the good of the community, and not personal benefit.
ועל פי דרך זה ענין מצוה של פרישות הוא תמצית מיסוד מצות קדושה, הנכרת בפועל בדרכי ההנהגה של האדם, אבל ברעיון ושאיפת הרוח מתרחבת מצוד, זו גם על כל מפעליו ומעשיו של האדם גם בינו לבין המקום, וביחס זה מתדמה ענין קדושה זו לקדושת הבורא ית׳ באיזה דמיון קצת, שכמו שבמעשה של הקב״ה בהבריאה כולה, וכן בכל רגע ורגע שהוא מקיים את העולם, כל מעשיו הם מוקדשים לטובת זולתו, כן רצונו ית׳ שיהיו מעשינו תמיד מוקדשים לטובת הכלל ולא להנאת עצמו.

Rav Shimon opened this introduction telling us that our greatest desire should be “להיטיב עם זולתנו, ליחיד ולרבים בהוה ובעתיד בדמות הבורא כביכול — do to good to others, to the individuals and to the masses, now and in the future, in imitation of the Creator (as it were).” What does commitment to doing good for others in the future add over speaking about the present? When we actually get to the point where we can do good to others, it will be because the moment is no longer in the future and became the present?

There is Aesop’s famous fable of The Goose that Laid the Golden Eggs. Here is the short version from  Joseph Jacobs’ Aesop’s Fables (1894) :

One day a countryman going to the nest of his Goose found there an egg all yellow and glittering. When he took it up it was as heavy as lead and he was going to throw it away, because he thought a trick had been played upon him. But he took it home on second thoughts, and soon found to his delight that it was an egg of pure gold. Every morning the same thing occurred, and he soon became rich by selling his eggs. As he grew rich he grew greedy; and thinking to get at once all the gold the Goose could give, he killed it and opened it only to find nothing.

Greed oft o’er reaches itself.

Self-help gurus discuss the need to balance production and production capacity. If you try too hard to produce in the present, you can destroy your capacity to produce and thus future production — and thus produce less overall. Killing the goose that laid the golden eggs.

This is no less true when what we are trying to produce is good for others. Therefore, considerations about how we will give to others in the future does effect how I act today. And at times that will mean caring for my own development.

In order to participate in bestowing Hashem’s good on others, there are three steps involved:

  1. Internalizing the definition of good. In order to really be good to others, I need to connect to the Almighty and thus to His Good.
  2. I need to refine myself, so that I minimize the role of error and self-deception.
  3. Only then can I fully give what is truly good.

The capacity to produce thus requires a healthy relationship with the Creator and constant attention to self-refinement.

If this is also the attitude one takes to luxury, relaxation and rest, then it too is dedicated to Hashem’s goal for Creation. Or saying the same thing in other words — it too is holy. Enjoying a good steak is holy if one is doing so in order to keep away the doldrums that would make one a less effective giver. (And more directly so if it’s part of a family setting or communal celebration, so that one is sharing happiness and thus increasing the joy of others.)

This is why Rav Shimon expended time explaining that holiness is commitment, which only as a side effect means separation from extraneous purposes. He is saying that the Ramban’s “sanctify yourself with that which is permitted to you” doesn’t mean austerity for its own sake, and can even indeed involve choosing to use the enjoyable and permitted for holy purposes. As long as the pursuit doesn’t become an extraneous end in itself.

Just as Hashem is perpetually sustaining me, I must perpetually be motivated by a desire to help others.

Next, Rav Shimon Shkop will explore the question of Self-Interest. If in it lies the dangers of distraction from our mission in life, why did Hashem make it?

Shaarei Yosher, sec. 3: Self-Interest – part 1

HOWEVER, what of a person who decides to submerge his nature, to reach a high level so that he has no thought or inclination in his soul for his own good, only a desire for the good of others? In this way he would have his desire reach the sanctity of the Creator, as His Desire in all of the creation and management of the world is only for the good of the created, and not for Himself at all. At first glance one might say that if a person reached this level, he would reach the epitome of being whole. But this is why our Sages of blessed memory teach us in this Midrash that it is not so. We cannot try to be similar to His Holiness in this respect.
אמנם אם יאמר האדם להכניע את טבעו להגיע למדה יתירה עד שלא יהיה בנפשו שום מחשבה ושאיפה להיטיב לעצמו, וכל שאיפותיו יהיו רק להיטיב לאחרים, ובאופן כזה תהיה שאיפתו להגיע לקדושת הבורא ית׳, שרצונו ית׳ בכל הבריאה והנהגת העולם רק להיטיב לנבראים ולא לעצמו ית׳ כלל וכלל, שבהשקפה ראשונה היה אפשר לומר שאם יגיע אדם למדרגה זו יגיע לתכלית השלמות, ולכן הורו לנו חז״ל במדרש זה שלא כן הוא, שאין לנו להשתדל להדמות לקדושת הבורא ית׳ בצד זה,

In Chassidus, there is a central theme called bitul hayeish, abnegation of [one’s own] existence. For a Lubavitch example, from the chapter titled “Bittul” in R’ Jacob Immanuel Schochet’s “The Mystical Tradition:

Yeshut, selfhood or self-assertion, is the very antithesis of the principle of yichud. It is a denial of ultimate reality vested exclusively in G-d who “fills the heaven and the earth (Jeremiah 23:24); there is no place devoid of His presence; there is none beside Him.

That is why pride and anger, arrogance and losing one’s temper, as well as not caring about others, and so forth, are tantamount to idolatry. For in all these cases man is concerned with himself, he assumes a reality for his ego. In all these cases man has become self-centered as opposed to G-d-centered, worshipping his ego instead of G-d alone. He may recognize the existence of G-d, even the supremacy of G-d, but also grants recognition to himself.

Of this self-centered person G-d says, “I and he cannot dwell together.” That person is so full of himself that in him there remains no place for G-d. Of this the Baal Shem Tov taught: Self-aggrandizement is worse than sin. For of all defilements and sins it is written, “Who dwells with them in the very midst of their impurity” (Leviticus 16:16); of the arrogant, however, it is said, “and he cannot both dwell in this world,’ as it is written, ‘I cannot tolerate him who has haughtiness and a proud heart’ (Psalms 101:5).”

Bitul Hayesh thus means total self-negation. The ego, all and any forms of selfhood, must be nullified. It has no place in the consciousness of Divine omnipresence…

While it plays a central role in Chabad, we also find bitul in Breslov. E.g. in Liqutei Moharan 1:52, Rav Nachman describes their central practice of hisbodedus (time alone, preferably in a natural setting, with one’s Creator and one’s thoughts) in terms of such bitul. And in “Dear Rabbi, Dear Doctor” (pg 200), Rabbi Dr. Abraham Twerski contrasts the roles of psychology’s notion of self-affirmation with what he describes as mussar‘s recommendation of bitul, defined as self-effacement. R’ Dr Twerski is clearly speaking about the lower-case-m mussar, the self-work, involved in his own mesorah of Chassidus than the capital-M Mussar, the thought of the movement launched by Rav Yisrael Salanter. In Chassidus, bitul hayeish means getting one’s Selfhood out of the way and thereby becoming a conduit for Hashem.

Rav Shimon here explicitly denies this approach. He takes the medrash‘s words “קדושתי למעלה מקדושתכם’ — My Sanctity is higher than yours” to show that while Hashem has no needs, we do. Hashem doesn’t engage in separation (perishus), because He has nothing to separate from. Our holiness is thus preforce different than His. One is in the “image” of G-d by being a committed to Hashem’s goal of bestowing good to others, but as an active partner, not a passive conduit. Selfhood isn’t to be eliminated of minimized. This position comes from the same general stream of Jewish Thought as the Alter of Slabodka’s, who founded a school of Mussar on the notion of Gadlus haAdam — the greatness of man, both in terms of myself, and in how I perceive the people I interact with.

As we shall see, this introduction will take us to lovingkindness by building on, rather than negating, selfhood.

Shaarei Yosher, sec. 3: Self-Interest – part 2

For His Holiness is greater than ours. His Holiness is only for the created and not for Himself because nothing was ever added to or could ever be added to the Creator through the actions He did or does. Therefore all His Desire could only be to be good to the created, but what He wants from us is not like this. As Rabbi Aqiva taught us, “your life comes first.” [Our sages] left us a hint of it when they interpret the scripture “Love your neighbor as yourself” in a negative sense, “That which is hateful to you, do not do to your peers.” In terms of obligation, it is fitting for a person to place his own good first.
שקדושת הבורא למעלה מקדושתנו, שקדושתו ית׳ היא רק לנבראים ולא לעצמו ית׳, שלא נתוסף ולא יתוסף שום יתרון להבורא על ידי מעשיו שעשה ועושה, וכל רצונו ית׳ רק להיטיב לנבראים, אבל מה שרוצה מאתנו אינו באופן זה, שהרי הורה לנו ר׳ עקיבא “חייך קודמים”, וגם רמזו לנו לפרש את המקרא, “ואהבת לרעך כמוך” בדרך שלילי “מאי דעלך סני, לחברך לא תעביד”, אבל בדרך חיובי ראוי לאדם להקדים את טובת עצמו,

As Rav Shimon had just said, Hashem has no needs, and therefore his Qedushah doesn’t involve separation from needs. However, Hashem did make us needy, and therefore we must have a concept of self-interest so that we get those needs met. The separation of qedushah is not separation from self-interest, but separation from those things which distract that self from its mission.

Bestowing good on the created begins with being good to oneself. That is how one has the capacity to give. And when operating from within that context, self-interest is a positive thing.

This is why, when someone is faced with a moral dilemma where he has to choose between two lives to save, one is not obligated to sacrifice one’s own life for the sake of another. The person who has the canteen in the middle of the desert doesn’t have to share the water. Rabbi Aqiva learns this from the verse “and your brother shall live with you” (Leviticus 25:36), which implies that the obligation to save another is only where he can then live “with you”.

(In an earlier blog entry, I explored how this idea would have applied in cases of the Holocaust. When Victor Frankl asserted that the Holocaust cost us our most idealistic people, that anyone who survived had to have the ability to place saving themselves and their own ahead of others, had he slipped from Jewish to Christian ethics? Was Rudolf Kasztner wrong in giving priority to getting his own friends and people in his political camp over other Jews onto his train to freedom? And I looked at R’ Tzevi Hirsch Meisels’s heart-rending words about a father whose son was one of 1,400 children placed on a train for extermination; was he permitted to risk his own life to save his son’s?)

Shaarei Yosher, sec. 3: Self-Interest – part 3

There are also grounds for asserting that in the very foundation of the creation of Adam, the Creator planted in him a very great measure of propensity to love himself. The sages of truth [i.e. Qabbalists] describe the purpose of all the work in this language, “The Infinite wanted to bestow complete good, that there wouldn’t even be the embarrassment of receiving.” ([Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzzato,] “QeLa”Ch [i.e. 138] Pischei Chokhmah“, ch. 4)
ועוד יש מקום שביסוד בריאת אדם נטע הבורא ית׳ בו תשוקת אהבת עצמו במדה גדולה מאד, שהרי אמרו חכמי האמת במטרת כל העבודה בזה הלשון: “רצה האין סוף ב״ה להיות מטיב הטבה שלמה שלא יהיה אפילו בושת למקבלים”, עד כאן לשון קל״ח פתחי חכמה פרק ד׳,

As we saw earlier, this is the essential paradox of the human condition. Hashem created us — there are two parties involved. Creation couldn’t have been to address His needs, as Hashem’s perfection rules out the possibility of His having any. Thus, creation must be to address ours. In the Ramchal’s idiom, “It is the nature of good to have someone on whom to bestow that good.” We exist to be the recipients of Hashem’s Good, and yet much in life is pain, misery, unhappiness and many things in which that Good really can’t be seen.

Here Rav Shim’on touches on the reason for this. The greatest good is to be a nosei, a carrier, a subject, rather than a nisa, a carried, an object. That is the “image” of the Divine that Hashem shares with us. And with that naturally must come the desire to be self-made rather than indebted to others. Hashem thus created us with a love of ourselves, of that which we made for ourselves, more than that which receive from Him (whether directly or through the aegis of others).

And this means that for man to be happiest and gain the most good, paradoxically not all of it can simply be handed to us. Much of the good in our lives is only given to us by the availability of pieces that we can then make that good ourselves. If we choose to.

This notion reveals how far the power of loving oneself goes, that “a person is more content with one qav [a unit of measure] of his own making than [he would be of] two qavin that are given to him” – even if from the Hand of the Holy One! – if the present is unearned. From here it should be self-evident that love of oneself is desired by the Holy One, even though “the wise shall walk because of it and the foolish will stumble over it.
וענין זה מבהיל שעד היכן מגיע כח אהבת עצמו שרוצה אדם בקב שלו יותר מקבין שינתן לו אף מיד הקב״ה אם יהיה מתנת חנם, מזה מובן שמדת אהבת עצמו היא רצויה בעיני הקב״ה רק “צדיקים ילכו בה ופושעים יכשלו בה.”

This need to be a creative, active, nosei, is so central to Hashem’s plan for man that He fosters and desires our self-interest. We have some idea of its value in that the Creator felt it was a positive thing to include in the human condition even though it carries the cost of enabling huge problems such as gaavah (egotism) and other sins. Or, to state it in the reverse: the fact that Hashem believes it is worth the potential cost, being so large and so obvious, shows the importance of self-interest.

In summation: Self-interest is a consequence of being in the image of the Divine, and thus motivated to be creative and giving, rather than passively receiving. It is thus a positive thing, something to be utilized rather than suppressed.

Shaarei Yosher, sec. 3: Self-Interest – part 4

In my opinion, this is true despite all the evil and sin that the world is full of because of this middah of self-love. Added to the challenge of wealth, this middah will cause him to stumble until the depths, as it is written, “Lest I grow full and deny[, and say, ‘Who is Hashem?’” (Proverbs 30:9)] Because of the greatness of a person’s attachment to his own qav, if Hashem graced him with wealth, and he believes with complete true faith that everything is the Holy One’s, he is in truth poor. What he has isn’t his. However, if he denies G-d, then it is all his and he is in his own mind truly wealthy. Therefore, to satisfy his desire to enjoy his wealth, he will habituate himself to deny G-d, and then his error is complete.
ולדעתי, הנה מלבד כל הרעות והחטאים שהעולם מלא מהם לרגלי מדה זו של אהבת עצמו, הנה גס לנסיון העושר תצטרף מדה זו להכשילו עד התהום כמה שכתב “פן אשבע וכחשתי”, שלרגלי גודל תשוקת האדם בקב שלו, הנה אם חננו ה׳ בעושר ויהיה מאמין באמונת האמת שהכל של הקב״ה הרי הוא עני באמת, ומה שיש לו אינו שלו, אבל אם יכפור בה׳ אז הכל שלו והוא עשיר ממש לפי דעתו, ועל כן למלא תשוקתו לזכות בעשרו, הוא מתרגל לכפור בה׳ ואז ממלא תאותו בשלמות,

Rav Shim’on Shkop holds that self-interest is a central part of Hashem’s plan for man, and so essential that its value outweighs the obvious problems it enables. Before continuing this line of reasoning, Rav Shim’on pauses to reinforce our awareness of those dangers.

Inherent in Hashem making a world in which we can be creative beings in His “Image” is that that world operate with some measure of predictability. Our plans may be thwarted by the unexpected, but the universe must run consistently enough so that we can even engage in making plans to begin with.

Our need to be people requires shoving things not under our control to the mental background, and to focus on what we can improve about the situation we find ourselves in, things we actually have the power to change. In order to be motivated to produce, we need to take pride in that which we produced. To create, we need to love ourselves and what we create.

But pride of accomplishment naturally leads to kafui tovah, ingratitude. That maximizes my sense of accomplishment and thus my pride. A person who is happier with one measure he made himself than with what he received is likely to focus all attention to his own contribution to the result and train himself to ignore what Hashem contributed. And that way leads to apostasy — “and then his error is complete”.

Shaarei Yosher, sec. 3: Self-Interest – part 5

One can also feel this way with respect to acquiring a greater thing [than a qav of merchandise], which is wisdom. To elaborate: If a person does not try to the full measure of his ability to acquire Torah, to grasp the wisdom of awe-fear and pure faith, then there is a possibility to stumble through the strength of the middah of self-love. The same way this middah causes evil to all who study external knowledge. If it weren’t possible to see more of Hashem’s actions through the broadening of knowledge, as it says, “the heavens tell of the glory of G-d [, and the work of his Hands is described by the sky.” (Psalms 19:2)], they would fall and descend downward. If they believe that all their wisdom and all they acquired were not theirs, they would lose all their wealth. Only through heretical denial can they make themselves rich. Then, all that makes them great is theirs, and can make them haughty of what they accomplished.
וכן אפשר להרגיש ענין זה גם בקנין העושר היותר גדול שהוא קנין החכמה, למדגיש בה, שאם לא ישתדל האדם לפי ערך מעלתו בקנין תורה להשיג חכמת היראה והאמונה הטהורה, אז יש מקום להכשל על ידי התגברות מדת אהבת עצמו, וכמו שמדה זו גורמת לרעה על כל העוסקים בחכמות חיצוניות, שלעומת שהיה ראוי שיתוסף מראה על ידי התרחבות ידיעתם במעשה ה׳, וכאמור השמים מספרים כבוד ה׳, הנה הם נופלים ויורדים למטה, שאם יאמינו שכל חכמתם וקנינם לא להם הוא, הרי אז אבדו כל עשרם, ורק על ידי הכפירה יתעשרו, כי כל מה שיתרונם בהם הכל להם הוא, ואז יש להם להתגאות בקנינם,

What we said about productivity and creativity is also true of learning — both academic and Torah knowledge. People take special pride in what they know, as knowledge is an internal acquisition, it becomes part of me.

However, Rav Shimon points out to us that knowledge comes with a unique tool to help avoid this pitfall, aside from the general approach we will see next (at the conclusion of this discussion of self-interest). There is an approach to wisdom that negates the usual tendency toward claiming credit, avoiding recognizing Hashem’s assistance in our endeavors, and potential heresy. All knowledge is awareness of what Hashem made — whether it is seeing Divine Wisdom in creation, or seeing His Glory in His Torah. One can thus pursue knowledge, including secular knowledge, as a way to encounter G-d.

Shaarei Yosher, sec. 3: Self-Interest – Conclusion

In the previous installment, Rav Shimon wrote, “שאם יאמינו שכל חכמתם וקנינם לא להם הוא, הרי אז אבדו כל עשרם, ורק על ידי הכפירה יתעשרו — If they believe that all their wisdom and all they acquired were not theirs, they would lose all their wealth. Only through heretical denial can they make themselves rich.”

It would seem Rav Shimon is basing his language on Ben Zoma’s famous statement in Avos 4:1:

… איזה הוא עשיר? השמח בחלקו. שנאמר “יְגִיעַ כַּפֶּיךָ כִּי תֹאכֵל, אַשְׁרֶיךָ וְטוֹב לָךְ.” (תהילים קכח,ב)

… Who is wealthy? One who is happy with his lot. As it says, “When you eat the labor of your hands, you are enriched and it is good for you.” (Tehillim 128:2)

Since people want to feel like self-made men, someone who can’t claim credit for their accomplishments are poor. This connection isn’t first made in Shaarei Yosher, it is inherent in Ben Zoma’s choice of proof text — “when you eat the labor of your hands.”

Why is Sukkos called in our tefillos “zeman simchaseinu“? Why is simchah associated more with Sukkos than with Pesach or Shavu’os? If anything, I would have thought the reverse: we still have the peoplehood granted us on Pesach, and the Torah given on Shavu’os. But the mun is gone, the cloud of glory that protected us have dissipated, Hashem’s guiding pillar no longer shows us the way — nothing we commemorate on Sukkos is still in our hands. Yes, we can still get food, shelter and guidance from the natural means He gave us — but the same was true before the desert! Chag haAsif, Sukkos in its role as the holiday of gratitude, is also “Zeman Simchaseinu — our period of [greatest] joy” because only through being grateful can we handle being recipients with simchah.

In this way one can explain that which is said, “Moses will be joyous with the giving of his portion, because You called him a reliable servant.” [Shabbos Morning Amidah] There is no joy in receiving a bit of wisdom unless he is a reliable servant who possesses nothing, that it is all his Master and Lord’s. Only then there is complete joy in acquiring wisdom. Without this [attitude] it is possible that there is no happiness in acquiring wisdom, for it through it he is capable of reaching heresy.
ועל דרך זה יש לבאר האמור “ישמח משה במתנת חלקו כי עבד נאמן קראת לו”, היינו שאין לשמוח במתנת חלק החכמה, רק אם הוא עבד נאמן שחושב שהכל אינו שלו ורק לרבו ואדונו, אז שמחה שלמה בקנין החכמה, ולולא זאת אפשר שאין שמחה בקנין החכמה שעל ידי זה ח״ו יוכל להגיע לידי כפירה ח״ו,

We say in the Shabbos morning Amidah, “ישמח משה במתנת חלקו כי עבד נאמן קראת לו” which I translated here as “Moses will be joyous with the giving of his portion, because You called him a reliable servant.” There are two interesting elements with the grammar of this line.

First, the use of the word “ישמח”, which for simplicity I rendered “will be joyous”. But did Moshe’s joy not begin yet? I think the point is more the Biblical Hebrew use of this conjugation: imperfective aspect rather than future tense. If this is correct, then a more accurate translation would be “Moshe is continuously happy….” (I just didn’t want to enshrine my theory in the translation.)

Second, Ben Zoma speaks of happiness “בחלקו — with his lot”, but the siddur talks of Moshe’s happiness “במתנת חלקו — with the giving of his portion.” This speaks directly to our topic of Self-Interest and the consequent need to claim credit for our accomplishments. Moshe could be happy with his portion without this second level, being happy with the fact that it was given, and not emphasizing his own role in the reception of what Hashem was even willing to call “Toras Moshe avdi — the Torah of Moses My servant”.

How do we avoid the slippery slope from the need to attend to one’s self and take pride in what one creates to the ills of egotism and haughtiness? By fully accepting one’s role as Hashem’s servant. “Because You called him a reliable servant.”

The only way to be content or happy is to priorize one’s life in a way that He can call you “a reliable servant”. As Rav Shimon put it, “שיהיה אדיר חפצנו, להיטיב עם זולתנו, ליחיד ולרבים בהוה ובעתיד בדמות הבורא כביכול — … so that our greatest desire should be to do good to others, to individuals and to the masses, now and in the future, in imitation of the Creator (as it were).” If I have a job to do, I care less about where things come from than what I can accomplish with what I have. By making one’s life about giving to others, one doesn’t focus on receiving. Rather than egotism, one realizes that one is a critical part of a bigger whole.

And that brings us to Rav Shimon’s next topic…

Shaarei Yosher, sec. 4: Connecting – part 1

Although at first glance it seems that feelings of love for oneself and feelings of love for others are like competing co-wives one to the other, we have the duty to try to delve into it, to find the means to unite them, since Hashem expects both from us. This means [a person must] explain and accept the truth of the quality of his “I”, for with it the statures of [different] people are differentiated, each according to their level.
והנה אם בהשקפה ראשונה רגשי אהבת עצמו ורגשי אהבת זולתו, הם כצרות זו לזו, אבל עלינו להשתדל להעמיק בזה למצוא הסגולה המאחדת אותם אחרי כי שניהם דורש ה׳ מאתנו, וסגולה זו היא שיתברר ויתאמת אצל האדם איכותו של ה״אני״ שלו, כי בזה יומדד מעלת כל האדם לפי מדרגתו,

(The term used for co-wives, for two wives in a polygamous marriage arrangement, is “tzaros” — literally, “troubles”.) Rav Shimon is aware that the introduction until this point presents a dialectic. We might have thought the two poles were unresolvable, “like competing co-wives”), but Rav Shimon’s path in avodas Hashem is based on their synthesis.

Thesis:

For everything He created and formed was according to His Will (may it be blessed), [that is] only to be good to the creations. So too His Will is that we walk in His ways. As it says “and you shall walk in His Ways” (Devarim 28:9)
שכל מה שברא ויצר היה רצונו יתברך רק להיטיב עם הנבראים, כן רצונו ית׳ שנהלך בדרכיו כאמור “והלכת בדרכיו”,

Antithesis:

There are also grounds for asserting that in the very foundation of the creation of Adam, the Creator planted in him a very great measure of propensity to love himself.
ועוד יש מקום שביסוד בריאת אדם נטע הבורא ית׳ בו תשוקת אהבת עצמו במדה גדולה מאד,

We will see how Rav Shimon resolves the tension between these two thoughts in future installments. However, we already had two hints in Rav Shimon’s discussion of the value of self-interest.

First:

As Rabbi Aqiva taught us, “your life comes first.” [Our sages] left us a hint of it when they interpret the scripture “Love your neighbor as yourself” in a negative sense, “That which is hateful to you, do not do to your peers.” In terms of obligation, it is fitting for a person to place his own good first.
שהרי הורה לנו ר׳ עקיבא “חייך קודמים”, וגם רמזו לנו לפרש את המקרא, “ואהבת לרעך כמוך” בדרך שלילי “מאי דעלך סני, לחברך לא תעביד”, אבל בדרך חיובי ראוי לאדם להקדים את טובת עצמו,

The verse “ואהבת לרעך כמוך — and you shall love your neighbor as yourself” still places one’s actual self first.

Second, from the installment just before this one:

In this way one can explain that which is said, “Moses will be joyous with the giving of his portion, because You called him a reliable servant.” [Shabbos Morning Amidah] There is no joy in receiving a bit of wisdom unless he is a reliable servant who possesses nothing, that it is all his Master and Lord’s.
ועל דרך זה יש לבאר האמור “ישמח משה במתנת חלקו כי עבד נאמן קראת לו”, היינו שאין לשמוח במתנת חלק החכמה, רק אם הוא עבד נאמן שחושב שהכל אינו שלו ורק לרבו ואדונו,

The key to joy is to see oneself as a servant of G-d, i.e. to commit oneself to giving His Good to others.

Combining these two ideas, Rav Shimon now adds the idea that the quality of a person’s “I”, differentiates the statures of different people. The servant of Hashem is thus someone with a different quality of “I” than the rest of us, and this informs his loving someone else like himself (his “I”).

In the next installment, we will see more specifically how these qualities differ.

Shaarei Yosher, sec. 4: Connecting – part 2

The entire “I” of a coarse and lowly person is restricted only to his substance and body. Above him is someone who feels that his “I” is a synthesis of body and soul. …
האיש הגס והשפל כל ״אני׳׳ שלו מצומצם רק בחמרו וגופו, למעלה ממנו מי שמרגיש ש״אני״ שלו הוא מורכב מגוף ונפש, …

How do people differ qualitatively? By the breadth of their notion of “ani” (“I”). Rav Shimon might mean “ani” as a reference to the same etymology from which Freud took his term “Ego”, I don’t know.

In his ranking of gradations of soul, we just saw Rav Shimon’s first two levels:

Level 0: The person who thinks r”l that they are only a body. They are totally unaware of their spiritual side, and in fact, just think they are clever animals.  The driving force in their lives are creature comforts: food sex, comfortable clothing, rest, etc…

Level 1: The person who is aware of their own soul. This person addresses both bodily needs and spiritual ones. But, their attention to spirituality is all for the self.


There is a machloqes, a dispute among the rabbis, as to how to view man. One side, found often among books of Mussar, views a person as a soul who inhabits a body (Ramchal, Derekh Hashem), or perhaps controls it as a rider upon a donkey (Rav Scherr’s introduction to the reprinting of Cheshbon haNefesh). This then becomes a key symbol in the Gra’s interpretation system — when one finds a chamor / donkey in a narrative, it is generally a symbol for chomer / physicality. Avraham at the Aqeidah or the mashiach come in riding on a donkey as a way to hint to us their mastery over their own physicality.

The other stream of thought includes the body in the definition of person. Man as a fusion of body and soul. Such as when the gemara (Sanhedrin 91b) compares a sinner to a blind man and a lame man who conspire together to steal fruit. Each claims innocence, so the judge puts one atop the other and judges them as a unit. So too, the gemara explains, in order to be judged for our sins, Hashem will bodily resurrect the sinner to reconstruct the person as they were then.

Rav Shimon’s topic is slightly different. The “ani” of a person is a matter of self-definition, not whether that self-definition refers to one entity (just the person), or many (the person’s “me and mine”). As we will see later, the above dispute might be more in terms of what the introduction idenfies with “atzmi“, not “ani“.

Shaarei Yosher, sec. 4: Connecting – part 3

… And above him is someone who can include in his “I” all of his household and family. Someone who walks according to the way of the Torah, his “I” includes the whole Jewish people, since in truth every Jewish person is only like a limb of the body of the nation of Israel
…ולמעלה מזה מי שמכניס לה״אני״ שלו בני ביתו ומשפחתו, והאיש ההולך על פי דרכי התורה, ה״אני״ שלו כולל את כל עם ישראל, שבאמת כל איש ישראל הוא רק כאבר מגוף האומה הישראלית.

We saw last time the first two gradations of soul:
Level 0: The person who thinks their “ani” is only their body.
Level 1: The person who thinks of themselves as body plus soul.

Going beyond this, we get to level 2, at which the gradations become a spectrum rather than discrete (and so I switched to floating-point numbering):

Level 2.0: The person who connects to another, and thus their “ani” extends beyond their individuality.

Typically this first person is through marriage: “עַל כֵּן יַעֲזָב אִישׁ אֶת אָבִיו וְאֶת אִמּוֹ, וְדָבַק בְּאִשְׁתּוֹ וְהָיוּ לְבָשָׂר אֶחָד –Therefore a man leaves his father and his mother, cleaves to his wife, and they become one flesh.” (Bereishis 2:25) The unity with a spouse.

Then one can find unity with his children (G-d willing they are granted any) or other family. It is easy to stand up to defend one’s children, to see the nuclear family as “me and mine”. The soul reaches progressively higher levels of refinement as he broadens that definition. Once a person reaches the level of connecting to another, it becomes a gradual process of including more and more.

This is the synthesis I promised a couple of installments back.

The first two sections that I divided the introduction into focused on how: G-d created us to have someone to whom to be Good, imitating Hashem means therefore being good to others and being in His Image means refining oneself to be more able to do so in the future, and that “qedushah” (holiness) is the extent to which one is committed to that goal. (With the side effect of requiring drawing away from other goals.)

From proving that this separation must be a side-effect of a person’s qedushah rather than qedushah itself (since it cannot characterize Hashem’s holiness), Rav Shimon moves on to a discusion of the need to have self-interest as part of one’s service of G-d.

With this notion of extending one’s “ani“, we see how a focus on providing Hashem’s Good to others and self-interest do not contradict “as two warring co-wives.” Rather, it is one’s vested interest in the extended self — the ever-widening circle of those you touch and who touch you — that becomes the very motivation for giving.


Notice where the soul is placed in this progression. Connecting to one’s spirituality is lower in ranking than aiding others. First is the person who connected to G-d. Then comes the person who uses that connection to bestow His Good upon them.

The Meshekh Chokhmah (pg 403, top of 2nd col) discusses the priority of Torah learning in relation to the other mitzvos in these terms. The Y-mi Berakhos says that one interrupts learning to build a sukkah or set up a lulav. Rashi (Mes’ Sukkah) says that someone who is going somewhere to teach is exempt from sukkah and lulav. Don’t these two conflict? Learning itself is outranked by the preparation for these two mitzvos, but merely preparation to teach Torah outranks the mitzvos themselves?!

The Meshekh Chokhmah gives what he calls a “taam mufla” (an amazing reason). Learning just to learn is something he could have done before being born. The value in learning is when someone learns al menas la’asos (in order to do).

This is the essence of Moshe’s answer to the angels at Har Sinai. The angels complained to G-d how He could give the Torah to mere flesh and blood rather than them. Moshe answers, “It says ‘kabeid es avikha‘ (honor your father [and mother]), do you have parents?”

The ability to do a mitzvah, even the preparation for a mitzvah, is the whole justification of being born and placing that intellect that can hold Torah into a body that can act.

However, that’s not true for teaching. Therefore, the preparation to teach Torah, traveling to the class outranks mitzvos even as the mere preparation steps for those very same mitzvos outrank learning.

The contrast to Nefesh haChaim (cheleq IV) and its formulation of the ideal of Torah lishmah (studying Torah for its own sake) appears to me to be drastic. There, R’ Chaim Volozhiner portrays the ideal as absorbing and internalizing Hashem’s Wisdom, and thus Torah study is the ultimate mitzvah. The Meshekh Chokhmah’s idea is more along the same lines as Shaarei Yosher — giving Hashem’s Good (including Torah) to others is the highest priority, and the purpose for which we learn and do mitzvos between man and the Omnipresent.

Shaarei Yosher, sec. 4: Connecting – part 4

And there are more levels in this of a person who is whole, who can connect his soul to feel that all of the world and worlds are his “I”, and he himself is only one small limb in all of creation. Then, his self-love helps him love all of the Jewish people and [even] all of creation.
ועוד יש בזה מעלות של איש השלם ראוי להשריש בנפשו להרגיש שכל העולמות כולם הוא ה״אני״ שלו, והוא בעצמו רק כאבר קטן בתוך הבריאה כולה, ואז גם רגש אהבת עצמו עוזר לו לאהוב את כל עם ישראל, ואת כל הבריאה כולה.

We so far saw the level 0 individual, who sees himself as little more than an animal, more clever than others but driven by the same basic needs, the level 1 individual who is aware of his own spirituality and his connection to G-d, and the level 2.0 individual who includes in his notion of “ani” (“I”) his connection to and interdependency on others.

We started with the person who connects in this way to just one other, then one’s immediate family, one’s friends, and so on — level 2.0 to 2.1, 2.2, …. But this gradual progression doesn’t reach the next level until the person so realizes that they exist as part of the Jewish People, the human species and the universe as a whole.

Perhaps this is what was unique about Moshe Rabbeinu — he could understand the “Mind” of the Creator in a way the rest of us can’t because he fully saw himself as part of the totality of Creation, entirely a piece within His Great Plan. And thus, the one who was anav mikol adam (more modest than all other people) was the consummate eved Hashem (servant of G-d) and the conduit for the transmission of His Will, the Torah, to humanity.


Earlier (Ch 1 “Mission”, sec 2 in this series) we saw this quote:

(ויקרא יט) “ואהבת לרעך כמוך.”  רבי עקיבה אומר זהו כלל גדול בתורה.  בן עזאי אומר (בראשית ה) “זה ספר תולדות אדם” — זה כלל גדול מזה.

“And you shall love your friends as yourself [I am Hashem].” (Vayiqra 19). Rabbi Aqiva said, “This is a great principle in the Torah. Ben Azai said, “‘This is the book of the generations of Adam’ (Genesis 5) — this is a greater principle than that.”

-Yerushalmi Nedarim 9:4 (vilna 30b)

R’ Aqiva and Ben Azzai argue over which verse is the one foundation. Rabbi Aqiva suggests one that applies only to people who qualify as “friends” (perhaps Jews, perhaps only observant Jews, perhaps also non-Jews who observe the 7 laws of Noah). Ben Azzzai instead says the entire Torah is founded on a verse that emphasized the fraternal bonds of all humanity — we are all children of Adam and Eve.

To fully reach Rav Shimon’s notion of the purest soul, one needs to have a universalist attitude, to have an “ani” that includes all people. Particularlism and ahavas Yisrael (Love of Jews) becomes part of that — the Jewish people are part of my extension to the whole. Just as a big part of my bestowing good on humanity as a whole is through the role given to me as a Jew.

This concept of ever broader circles of connection that the person includes as “I” is not the same as Universal Love. There is still a ranking. “A poor person who is his relative has priority to other poor. And the poor of his city are ahead of the poor of another city.” When lending money, halakhah obligates lending to family first, then neighbors, then Jews, then non-Jews (Qitzur Shulchan Arukh [QSA] 179:1), and when selling land, while priority is given to adjacent neighbors who would gain by having a single large plot, second in priority is again relatives, then friends, then neighbors, than citizens of one’s city, etc… (QSA 62:18)

This interplay between universalism and particularism appears repeatedly in tefillah. The first berakhah before Shema is all about how Hashem is perpetually creating, He is the source of both light and dark, good and evil — a description of His relationship to all of creation. Then, we get more personal and in the second berakhah bless G-d “Who loves His nation Israel.” We open the core of our prayers by starting with the universal and narrowing focus.

Aleinu, at the conclusion of tefillah, we do the reverse: we start focused on the Jewish People, “It is upon us to praise the Master…” Then, in the second paragraph, we pray for when that work reaches all of humanity, “to repair the world as a Kingdom of Shakai… As it says in Your Torah, ‘Hashem will rule forever’.”

Shaarei Yosher, sec. 4: Connecting – Conclusion

In my opinion, this idea is hinted at in Hillel’s words, as he used to say, “If I am [not] for me, who will be for me? And when I am for myself, what am I?” It is fitting for each person to strive to be concerned for himself. But with this, he must also strive to understand that “I for myself, what am I?” If he constricts his “I” to a narrow domain, limited to what the eye can see [is him], then his “I” – what is it? Vanity and ignorable. But if his feelings are broader and include [all of] creation, that he is a great person and also like a small limb in this great body, then he is lofty and of great worth. In a great engine even the smallest screw is important if it even serves the smallest role in the engine. For the whole is made of parts, and no more than the sum of its parts
ולדעתי מרומז ענין זה במאמרו של הלל ע״ה שהיה אומר “אם [אין] אני לי מי לי? וכשאני לעצמי מה אני?” היינו שראוי לכל אדם להתאמץ לדאוג תמיד בעד עצמו, אבל עם זה יתאמץ להבין שאני לעצמי מד, אני, שאם יצמצם את ה״אני״ שלו בחוג צר כפי מראית עין, אז ״אני״ זה מה הוא, הבל הוא ובאין נחשב, אבל אם תהיה הרגשתו מאומתת, שכללות הבריאה הוא האדם הגדול והוא ג״כ כאבר קטן בגוף הגדול הזה, אז רם ונשא גם ערכו הוא, שבמכונה גדולה גם מסמר היותר קטן אם רק משמש כלום להמכונה, הוא דבר חשוב מאד, שהכלל בגוי מפרטים ואין בכלל אלא מה שבפרט,

Rav Shimon’s take on this famous mishnah is striking.

We saw Rav Shimon pose a dialectic — on the one hand life is all about emulating Hashem’s middah of bestowing Good on others; on the other, in order to be active individuals (as He is), we need a healthy self-interest. This section is the synthesis. Self-interest can become the root of giving to others once we realize that our notion of “ani” only begins with my body and soul, and in reality reflects my being part of all of creation. Bestowing good therefore comes not from denying my self, but on my natural inclination to do good to myself. (Which sounds obscure until you think about parenting, and doing things for your children.)

In his eyes, the first two questions in the mishnah are the same dialectic. The first question, “If I am not for myself (li), who will be for me (li)?” refers to the need for self-interest. The second, “But when I am for me alone (le’atzmi), who am I?” speaks of the higher calling one has to invest in the whole. Note also Hillel’s shift in language, which supports Rav Shimon’s interpretation. In the first question, “for myself” is called “li“. Then he switches to le’atzmi” (which I translated “for myself alone”) is from the word “etzem“, bone, core, to describe the narrow “ani” of the courser individual.


This concept of Rav Shimon Shkop’s casts a new light on a number of middos:

Anavah: Anavah (humility) can be understood as stemming from a root related to anah, to answer. (R’ YG Bechhofer suggested this to me once.) An anav doesn’t make the world about himself, he understands that there is a bigger picture of which he is a part.

This could be why anavah, redemption, and making sure to repeat an idea in the name of the one who said it (Beraisa Avos 6:6) are interrelated. The anav has no problem sharing credit, doesn’t need to be the savior. Anavah brings redemption through the elimination of the “ani” which focuses only narrowly on the self.

The anav‘s self worth comes from knowing he is critical to the operation of the engine, even if that role is to be its littlest screw (as Rav Shimon) put it. The the engine won’t run without that screw either — it’s of no less value than the more-discussed parts like the spark plugs or pistons.

The anav therefore knows he has the same value as the “engine” as a whole which depends upon him.

Tzeni’us: Tzeni’us (modesty) is actually being happier being the screw. The anav gets value from his part within the whole, the tzanu’ah doesn’t want to lose his connection to others by having the limelight. As the Shunamit said to Elisha, “besoch ami anochi yoshaves — I dwell among my people.” (gemara holds up for us to follow. (Berakhos 49b)

Rachamim: similarly, the middah usually rendered mercy (most common), empathy (my preference), sympathy, or compassion, is also given a connectionist name. Rachamim is from the word rechem, womb, referring to the relationship between mother and unborn child.

Hodaah this word for thankfulness is from the same root as vidui (confession) and the rabbinic Hebrew usage of “modim” — to agree. (See my earlier entry, Gratitude, in particular section V.) What all three meanings have in common is that they focus on the I-Thou relationship: thankfulness is acknowledging I received from another, vidui is admitting I gave someone else a pain or problem, and to agree is to acknoeldge a shared position, one in which neither side is particularly giving to another.

The other two possibilities — my giving to you and you wronging me — are forms of connection that don’t require my dwelling upon. But they are in themselves the next two middos I believe are recast by Rav Shimon’s perspective.

Chesed: Lovingkindness is the dropping of barriers between myself and the other. Thus, there can be chesed which is good, as in the “chasadim tovim — good instances of chesed” we praise Hashem for sustaining us with when we say the first berakhah of Shemoneh Esrei. But there is also a lack of appropriate barriers, chesed that is not good.

Maavir al Midosav: Allowing his limits to be crossed. This is the person willing to forgo being slighted if it means someone else gains far more than his loss. “Rava said: Whomever is maavir al midosav, they [the heavenly court] passes [ma’avirin] over all his sins for him.” – Shabbos 17b. See my post on this middah.


With the conclusion of this section, I want to share some other ways in which connectionism / holism play into Rav Shimon Shkop’s general worldview.

A

I posted on the central difference between Brisker Derekh, the mode of analyzing halakhah developed by Rav Chaim Brisker, and his student, Rav Shimon Shkop’s, derekh. Rav Chaim analyzes halakhah on the level of “what”, of the law in legal terms. Rav Shimon added the level of “why”, grounding the analysis in philosophy, the psychology of those commanded, and the world around us.

But there is a second distinction… Rav Chaim would explain an apparent contradiction by finding “the chiluq“, the distinction between two cases that we initially thought ought to be the same, or the distinction between the viewpoints in two sides of a dispute. Rav Shimon also invokes hitztarfus, fusion or connectedness.

Rarely does an event only have one cause. Similarly, there is no reason to assume that it takes one cause to create an obligation or prohibition rather than a combination of them. From the Greeks until the 20th century, science focused on explaining things by explaining their parts. In the mid-20th century started the development of studying how things are connected. It turns out that networks of many sorts share the same math, whether we’re talking real communities, Facebook ones, links between web pages, neurons, etc… This is the notion of emergent properties, studying features that come from how parts are combined rather than being attributable to the parts themselves.

So the emphasis here on trying to become a critical part of the engine, to be indispensable in the interaction of parts while preferably avoiding standing out from the whole, fits Rav Shimon’s general worldview in other ways.

Hitztarfus.

B

I took this holistic – connectionist approach even further in an early essay on this blog.

Another difference can be seen by contrasting the style of Aristotle with that of Rav Yehudah haNasi. Aristotle catalogues. He divides a subject into subtopics, and those subtopics even further, until one is down to the individual fact. Greek thought was focused on reductionism. To understand a phenomenon, break it down into smaller pieces, and try to understand each piece. This is typical of the Yefetic perspective….

As opposed to the way Rav Yehudah haNasi redacted the first mishnah. The beginning of the mishnah could have said that the time for evening shema is from sunset until 1/3 the night. But instead it uses referents involving kehunah, taharah and ashmores. This is not to confuse the issue, but because from the Semitic perspective the key to understanding one mitzvah is from its connections to everything else.

Yefes is reductionist, believing the world can be understood as the sum of its smallest pieces. Sheim is holistic, looking at the interconnections between those pieces, and the pieces only gaining meaning from the relationships in which they partake.

This is not only true statically, but also over the course of time. We get used to identifying “the cause” of something. Why did he hurt his foot? Because a can fell on it. Why did the can fall? Because someone else accidentally kicked it. And so on… However, it’s equally true that he hurt his foot because even though he usually wears iron toed hiking boot, he chose not to wear them that that day.

I would instead suggest that every event is like “the perfect storm”, every one has combinations of factors that come to a head at the same point….

Des Cartes famously said, “Cogito ergo sum — I think therefore I am.” A true skeptic can’t be sure of much. Even “1 + 1 = 2″ might be a delusion caused by insanity or a malevelent deity. The only thing one can be sure of is that there is an “I” doing the thinking, being sure. He then tried to prove the existence of other things, including G-d, with just this one given.

But even the Cogito is subject to this distinction. Are we individuals who interact, or only defined as individuals by the set of interactions we have with others? Moshe Rabbeinu lacked his full prophetic gift from the time of the Golden Calf until the rise of the next generation. The Or haChaim explains that this is because “Kol Yisrael areivim zeh bazeh” (Shevu’os 39a), which is usually translated “All Jews are guarantors one for another”. That’s consistent with another version of the quote, which ends “lazeh” (for this). However, “ba-”, in, implies a different meaning of the word “areivim”, mixture. All Jews are mixed, one into the other. Moshe’s soul did not stand alone, it is connected and overlaps those of the rest of the nation. When they lowered themselves with the calf, Moshe’s soul was diminished.

Even the “I” is not reductionist, but defined by its connections.


From this relation-based orientation comes a second distinction, a basically different approach to logic. The West never formalized the notion of reality having gray areas…

Kol Yisrael areivim zeh bazeh”, the Jewish People are a unit.

Since the Babylonian exile, the remaining Children of Israel, the descendents of the Kingdom of Judea, have been called “Jews”, from “Yehudah”.

What does “todah” mean? As it stands, it means “thanks”. The same root conjugated as “vidui” means to “confess”. Last, when the mishnah wants to stress that something is outside of a dispute, “hakol modim” — “all agree”. What do thanks, confession and agreement have in common?

When I thank someone, I acknowledge his actions had an impact on me. When I confess, I am admitting that my actions had an impact on him. And when we are modim, we realize that an idea isn’t mine or yours, but ours. The point in common in the three uses of the root is a realization of connectedness. I wrote a few years ago:

Do roads exist to connect cities, or do cities exist to serve the roads? We naturally assume the former, that roads are built to allow people and goods to travel from one center to another.

However, historically speaking, it’s usually the reverse. Medina, in Saudi Arabia, grew from the crossroads of trading routes. Canaan was at the crossroads of three continents, and its very name comes from the word for “traders”. This is why the Israel of Na”kh was so often crossed by the soldiers of Assyria and Egypt, en route to the other to battle. And being at a traffic center placed us in the ideal situation to influence world thought. Because of the centrality of shipping, New York, Baltimore and Boston all grew around their harbors, and many European cities are on rivers — London, Paris, Budapest, Frankfurt, etc…

We are called Yehudim because only the descendants of the Kingdom of Judea returned after the Babylonian Exile, and of those tribes, Yehudah’s perspective dominated. We are Jews because, as Leah said upon naming her son, “Hapa’am odeh es Hashem — this time, I will thank G-d”. To be a Jew is to be a thanker, to acknowledge the connection.

Note that this implies a strong connection between Yom Kippur as a day of vidui, and Sukkos, the holiday of hoda’ah and consequent simchah

This is why the bareisa in Avos says that whomever says something in the name of the person who originally said it brings redemption to the world. By standing as part rather than being a whole.

Thus Rav Shimon’s notion of the greater “ani” is what being a Jew and Judaism are all about.

Shaarei Yosher, sec. 5: Sharing – part 1

Similarly it is appropriate to think about all the gifts of heaven “from the dew of the heavens and the fat of the land” (Bereishis 27:38) that they are given to the Jewish people as a whole. Their allotment to individuals is only in their role as caretakers until they divide it to those who need it, to each according to what is worthy for him, and to take for himself what is worthy for himself.
וכן ראוי להתבונן על כל מתנות שמים מטל שמים ומשמני הארץ שהם נתונים לכלל ישראל כולו, והתחלקותם להיחידים הוא רק בתור גזברות, על מנת שיחלקם לנצרכים, לכל אחד כחלק הראוי לו, וליטול לעצמו כפי חלקו הראוי לו.

When I quoted this portion to someone who grew up in the Soviet Union, the words “to each according to what is worthy for him, and to take for himself what is worthy for himself” triggered memories of Marx: “From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs!” (Critique of the Gotha Program, ch. 1) But we can’t escape the fact that giving to those is need isn’t called “charity” in Hebrew, but “tzedaqah — justice.”

However, had we stopped at Rav Shimon’s discussion of the centrality of self-interest, and how ethics can be based on an informed self-interest, his position would have sounded like something out of Ayn Rand. Compare Rabbi Aqiva’s statement that if there is only enough water for one, you are not obligated to give it up or share to save another with these words Rand puts in the mouth of John Galt, “I swear—by my life and my love of it—that I will never live for the sake of another man, nor ask another man to live for mine.”

Thus, all else being equal, items should go to those that need them. Recall, though, that Rav Shimon’s model isn’t a black-and-white, in the “ani” (my sense of “I’) or outside of it. “The poor of my city come first” — there are ever decreasing gradations of connection. So all else isn’t always equal.

Rav Shimon doesn’t expect someone to “live for the sake of another man”, but rather for the sake of the greater whole of which both of us are part. Nor does he expect me to give according to the needs of another, but rather to lose that feeling that he is “another” to begin with.

It is interesting to compare these words to those of Rav Shamshon Raphael Hirsch (Horeb par. 565, emphasis added):

G-d, to Whom you owe everything you possess, imposes upon you the duty not to consider it as given to you alone, but also to allow your brother who is poorer than you to make use of it, and to lend him money to enable him to rise out of his distress, to earn a livelihood and gain his independence at your side.”


Judaism is founded on the notion of beris, covenant. G-d forms covenants with Adam, Noach, Abram (and Abraham)… and the Torah itself is a beris. This is the topic of a prior post. To summarize, with an emphasis on the connnectionist aspect:

In the US, law is based on rights. Rights-based law trains the citizen to focus on insuring that no one else wrongs them. The line between people is protected by making sure no violator enters a victim’s space. But that has the danger of being abused as society slides into a culture of entitlement.

The historically common alternative is a contract-based law, people are given obligations to each other. Each side gives up something in order to get something from the other party that they value more. The line between people is protected by making sure no potential violator leaves his own space. People have obligations and restrictions that serve the other.

In a covenant, both sides come together to create something new. There are obligations and restrictions, as well. Not in deference to the other, but as my role toward that creation. The focus is thus not on protecting a line between people, but on people working together across those lines. Which would explain the value Rava ascribes to the middah of maavir al midosav (see the previous post). This is “keshe’ani le’atzmi, mah ani —When I am for myself alone, what am I?”

Shaarei Yosher, sec. 5: Sharing – Part 2

With this idea one can understand how charity has the effect of enriching the one who performs it, as the sages say on the verse “‘aseir ta’aseir – you shall surely tithe’ – tithe, so that you shall become rich – shetis’asheir” . Someone who is appointed over a small part of the national treasury who does a good job guarding at his appointment as appropriate will be next appointed to oversee a sum greater than that, if he is not promoted in some other way. If they find a flaw in his guard duty, no fine qualities to be found in him will help, and they will demote him to a smaller task. Similarly in the treasuries of heaven which are given to man. If he tithes appropriately, he satisfies his job of disbursement as he is supposed to conduct himself according to the Torah, giving to each as is appropriate according to the teachings of the Torah, then he will become wealthy and be appointed to disburse a greater treasure. And so on, upward and upward so that he can fulfill his lofty desire to do good for the masses through his stewardship of the treasury. In this way a man of reliable spirit does the will of his Maker.
ועל פי דעה זו יובן סגולת הצדקה שמעשרת את בעליה, כמו שדרשו חז״ל על הכתוב “‘עשר תעשר’ – עשר בשביל שתתעשר” (תענית דף ט.), שכמו שהממונה על אוצרות הממשלה באוצר קטן, אם ישמור תפקידו כראוי אז יתמנה להיות גזבר על אוצר גדול מזה, אף אם לא יצטיין במעלות אחרות, ולהיפך, אם יתגלה חסרון במשמרתו, לא יועילו לו כל מעלות שימצאו בו, ויורידוהו למשרה קטנה מזה, כל כך באוצרות שמים הנתנים לאדם, אם מעשר כראוי ממלא תפקיד הגזברות שלו כראוי ליטול לעצמו כפי דרכי התורה, ומחלק למי שראוי כל כך על פי הוראת התורה, אז יתעשר ויתמנה לגזברות על אוצר גדול מזה וכן הלאה למעלה למעלה, למען יתקיים רצון העליון בהטבת הכלל על ידי שמירת האוצר, ובזה איש נאמן רוח עושה רצון קונו יתברך.

In the previous portion, Rav Shimon advised us to see ourselves not as possessors, but as the part of the Jewish People that happens to be holding something on behalf of the whole. Here Rav Shimon explains a causal connection between giving to others and getting reward. Someone who shares Hashem’s bounty plays his role with what he is given, and thus it furthers Hashem’s goals to share with him even more. And even though a person only gives a percentage of his wealth, Hashem will still increase his entire wealth in order to increase that percentage.

This is why Rav Yochanan (Taanis 9a) homiletically explained “aseir ta’aser” (Devarim 22:41) ias “aseir bishvil shetis’asheir — tithe so that you will become rich.”  This isn’t merely testing G-d — that would be prohibited. It’s not even a promise of personal reward, offering a selfish reason to do the right thing. It is a fundamental expression of “im ein ani li, mi li — if I am not for myself, who will be for me?” Become rich, because the broader, fully developed “ani” of someone connect well beyond himself could use the wealth.